Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Dark Age Bodies

Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West

Lynda L. Coon
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 416
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Dark Age Bodies
    Book Description:

    In Dark Age Bodies Lynda L. Coon reconstructs the gender ideology of monastic masculinity through an investigation of early medieval readings of the body. Focusing on the Carolingian era, Coon evaluates the ritual and liturgical performances of monastic bodies within the imaginative landscapes of same-sex ascetic communities in northern Europe. She demonstrates how the priestly body plays a significant role in shaping major aspects of Carolingian history, such as the revival of classicism, movements for clerical reform, and church-state relations. In the political realm, Carolingian churchmen consistently exploited monastic constructions of gender to assert the power of the monastery. Stressing the superior qualities of priestly virility, clerical elites forged a model of gender that sought to feminize lay male bodies through a variety of textual, ritual, and spatial means. Focusing on three central themes-the body, architecture, and ritual practice-the book draws from a variety of visual and textual materials, including poetry, grammar manuals, rhetorical treatises, biblical exegesis, monastic regulations, hagiographies, illuminated manuscripts, building plans, and cloister design. Interdisciplinary in scope, Dark Age Bodies brings together scholarship in architectural history and cultural anthropology with recent works in religion, classics, and gender to present a significant reconsideration of Carolingian culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0491-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Dark Age Bodies
    (pp. 1-12)

    An image of an early medieval monk dressed in humble attire and kneeling under a vibrant red cross appears in Plate 1 of this book. The hands of the monk, graceful and eloquent, are extended in a gesture of supplication, and his tonsure signifies his world-renouncing status. Subjugated by the weight of the cross, the monk’s body appears to lean on the words running left to right across the page. Within the contours of his body, bold red letters stand out and link him to the cross hovering over his head. The red letters form a separate poem within the...

  5. Chapter 1 “Hrabanus Is My Name”
    (pp. 13-41)

    Hrabanus Maurus was once a celebrated name. During his own time, contemporaries hailed him as the foremost biblical scholar in the Carolingian Empire. In a letter (ca. 854) written by Lothar I to Hrabanus, the ruler acclaims the monk as ranking with Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great.¹ Nor was Hrabanus forgotten as generations passed. In the early fourteenth century, Dante, who longed for restoration of the Carolingian Empire, places Hrabanus in the fourth heaven of the Paradiso, part of a virtuoso circle of prophetic seers who dwell in the sphere of the sun.² Among “the souls that form...

  6. Chapter 2 A Carolingian Aesthetic of Bricolage
    (pp. 42-68)

    Carolingian royal and monastic leaders collected texts and artifacts from different eras and locales: architectural designs, ancient statuary, relics, poetry, foreign alphabets, exotic animals, musical instruments, patristic writings, liturgical texts, and, of course, monastic rules.¹ The geographic and imaginative range of their collections embrace the biblical lands, the Levant, and the Byzantine East, as well as terrain closer to home: the western Mediterranean, North Africa, and northern Europe. A number of objects straddle the natural and supernatural worlds: Charlemagne’s elephant Abul-Abaz, the abbey of Fulda’s clod of earth from Mount Sinai, and the precise measurements of heavenly Jerusalem (144 cubits)...

  7. Chapter 3 Gendering the Benedictine Rule
    (pp. 69-97)

    Chapter 38 of the Benedictine Rule draws the audience’s attention to the special skills required of the weekly reader (the lector) as well as the spiritual dangers associated with the practice of public reading (the lectio) performed during meals taken in the monastery’s refectory. When eating, monks are to remain absolutely silent—no whispering, no speaking of any kind is to occur in the dining hall. Speech belongs solely to the designated lector, though intriguingly the Rule does allow the seated congregation to request things during repasts by making audible signals in ways other than through verbal communication (RB 38.7).¹...

  8. Chapter 4 Carolingian Practices of the Rule
    (pp. 98-133)

    The medieval cloister is a brilliant example of how an emblematic, religious space succeeds in “mooring a mental space—a space of contemplation and theological abstraction—to the earth, thus allowing it to express itself symbolically and to become a part of a practice, the practice of a well-defined group within a well-defined society.”¹ The cloister is also a perfect illustration of a gestural space, that is, a space produced not merely through the passive positioning of the human body within the built environment, but a space created through the interaction of the body—with its economy of gestures and...

  9. Chapter 5 Inscribing the Rule onto Carolingian Sacred Space
    (pp. 134-164)

    Architectural historian Charles McClendon looks to a singular monumental type, the so-called Frankish westwork, as indicative of the innovative nature of Carolingian building. At the same time, early medieval westworks are notoriously problematic architectural creations. In fact, scholars remain divided as to their precise structural attributes because extant westworks evidence great diversity in form, scale, and function. A general typology for the classic Carolingian westworks of the eighth and ninth centuries is as follows: “stair towers flanking the western entrance of a church and leading to an interior gallery or tribune.”¹ Typically, a westwork is lodged within the precincts of...

  10. Plates
    (pp. None)
  11. Chapter 6 Gendering the Plan of Saint Gall
    (pp. 165-215)

    The Corvey westwork and the Michael Rotunda at Fulda provide an excellent context for analyzing the gendered dimensions of another important artifact of the early medieval era, the so-called Plan of Saint Gall (ca. 830). Etched in red lead, the Plan is composed of five sheets of calfskin stitched together to form a rectangle of 30½ by 44 inches (Figure 6.1).¹ The manuscript is a meticulous rendering of a Carolingian monastic complex, including an impressive, double-apsidal basilica (suggestive of Fulda’s double-ender), a four-square cloister, a monastic cemetery, an herb garden, an abbot’s residence with loggias and a solarium, and guest...

  12. Chapter 7 Foursquare Power
    (pp. 216-246)

    Hrabanus Maurus’s acrostic poem In Honor of the Holy Cross invites the viewer’s gaze to move along the contours of the body of the Crucified One, from the base of the right foot, up to the middle of the thigh, and ending at the left heel (figura 1; see Plate 4).¹ The route is not accidental. It is imposed by the artist, who guides the reader’s eye by means of the acrostics layered on Christ’s body and its parts. Since Christ is the Word, Hrabanus dresses him up in letters. On Christ’s contours, Hrabanus writes a verse: “The Eternal Lord...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 247-254)

    In a homily written for the dedication of a church, Hrabanus Maurus makes a direct connection between bodies and buildings. He exhorts his fellow monks (fratres charissimi) to transform the interior spaces of their bodies into temples of God complete with all the trappings and rituals associated with Carolingian sacred space: wall paintings, candelabra, voices stirred by the power of chant, and holy readings. Hrabanus reasons that the internal nature of a monk should be an eternal liturgy as enduring as mortar and stone, yet composed of blood and sinew.¹ The body of a monk chanting “Amen” or “Alleluia” in...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 255-340)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 341-374)
  16. Index
    (pp. 375-388)
  17. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 389-390)